Mario + Picasso = ?

Of all the accusations that are constantly (and arbitrarily) hurled at the video game medium, none is more unverifiable than the claim that “games aren’t art.”

In a world where gaming is increasingly becoming an integral piece of the cultural pie, it’s getting harder and harder to shoehorn gamers into the violence-prone, anti-social, basement-dweller cookie cutter of a bygone age. Instead, the high-class critics of gaming have declared — between bouts of monocle adjusting and caviar smoothies, no doubt — that games can never provide the same emotional response traditionally reserved for music, literature and film. To which I say, with the utmost confidence and a dash of smug condescension, “Ladies and gentlemen, meet Braid.”

Built as a 2D platformer/puzzler with beautifully surreal hand-drawn graphics, Braid tells the story of Tim and his quest to find The Princess. Tim is aided in his quest by an ability to travel backwards in time, ensuring among other things that you cannot die. Get hit by an enemy? Just hold the “X” button and rewind time until you can avoid being hit. Each of the 6 different Worlds provides a new mechanic that must be combined with the aforementioned time travel in order to prevail. My personal favorite is the ring that slows down everything within a certain proximity to it, but I digress.

So you see, that’s the premise of the game, but it’s not really what Braid is about. What begins as a fairly standard exercise in princess rescuing turns into an existential fable that challenges not only our perception of ourselves but of our place in the world. This deep, engrossing narrative combined with the fine art style, wonderful score, spot-on controls and mind-bending objectives comes together to form something that, like all art, is more than the sum of its parts.

Also, like art, Braid asks some serious questions that are uncomfortable to think about. Is honesty or perfection more important? How often is our perception of ourselves flawed? Do we, as people, often make things worse in an attempt to make them better?

Having been an avid gamer for the past 20 years or so, I feel the scene where Tim actually finds The Princess is one of the most melancholy, bittersweet, touching and heart-rending sequences that I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. With that one revelation, the game is turned on its head, evoking movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Fight Club.

Experiences like this don’t come along very often, so if you own an Xbox 360, you owe it to yourself to download this title at your earliest convenience. Although the actual game will likely last only five hours or so, the extra secrets, speed runs and storyline implications will keep you occupied long after you’ve finished the story mode and turned off your console for the night. In a best case scenario you may even take a good, long look at some situation in your own life and try examining it from a different angle. After all, in the words of the late actress Stella Adler, “Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”

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